An Ontario man who converted to Islam and travelled to Mauritania is now serving a two-year sentence for having ties to terrorism, Amnesty International has confirmed.
Aaron Yoon, of London, Ont., is a former high-school friend of two Canadians who died in January’s terrorist strike in Algeria.
There had been confusion about his fate, with his family denying that he is behind bars and the federal government refusing to be explicit about his whereabouts. In fact, Mr. Yoon has been custody for more than 15 months after being arrested in December 2011.
Mr. Yoon was sentenced after a trial in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott last July, said Gaëtan Mootoo, an Amnesty International researcher for West Africa.
The Canadian told Mr. Mootoo he didn’t want the human-rights group to lobby on his behalf.
“He didn’t want Amnesty to campaign for him so I have to respect that,” Mr. Mootoo said in a phone interview from Paris.
Because Mr. Yoon was arrested in Dec. 2011, his sentence will end in December of this year, Mr. Mootoo said. In addition to the two-year detention term, he was also imposed “a heavy fine.”
Late Friday, CBC broadcast an interview with Mr. Yoon, saying that someone had smuggled a cellphone into the prison for him.
Claiming he had been tortured in jail and that he was not getting adequate help from Canadian diplomats, Mr. Yoon said he was studying Arabic in Mauritania when he was arrested without cause.
Denying links to terrorism, he said had no idea why his two of his friends from London were involved in an apparent suicide mission of a terrorist attack in Algeria.
"You know what? It's more of a shock to me than it is to you," Mr. Yoon told the CBC. "... I have no idea. I've been in prison. In reality I don't really care ... I've been in prison for a year, almost for two years now and I don't see any help from the Canadian government."
A July 29, 2012, article by the Mauritanian periodical Al Houriya said Mr. Yoon was held on suspicion he is a jihadi with the hardline Salafist movement.
It said he suffered from a urinary infection but couldn’t get medical treatment so inmates dropped him near the prison gate and left him there unconscious.
Mr. Mootoo said that he could not comment about the incident but that Mr. Yoon is currently in good health. Contrary to what Mr. Yoon told the CBC, Mr. Mootoo said the young Canadian is detained in relatively good conditions at the civil prison in Nouakchott, where most Islamic radicals are held.
Asked specifically if a Canadian citizen was held in Mauritania, a Foreign Affairs official in Ottawa would only say this week that “we are aware of a Canadian who has been detained abroad.”
Mr. Yoon’s two dead friends, Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, were checked by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, starting in 2007.
But sources say that the RCMP joined the probe in 2010, suggesting law-enforcement authorities were increasingly concerned about their potential crimes.
CSIS only collects information while RCMP officers alone have the power to arrest suspects.
When threats are felt to be serious enough, CSIS sends a “disclosure letter” or an “advisory letter” to the RCMP concerning the most dangerous extremists. The disclosure letters provide tips and leads to the Mounties, while advisory letters provide the RCMP with information that is intended to support police searches, wiretaps and, eventually, criminal charges.
Given the Londoners were successively on CSIS and then the RCMP’s radar screens, that means they would have been considered to be a dangerous and elevating threat.
While Mr. Medlej and Mr. Katsiroubas are now dead, the Mounties are still seeking more information on anyone in Canada who might have assisted the pair’s terrorist endeavours or participated in their radicalization in recent years.
“The reality is that we need the public’s help,” RCMP Superintendent Marc Richer at a news conference Thursday.
Mr. Medlej and Mr. Katsiroubas were among the 29 terrorists who died in an attack against a gas plant in Algeria last January.
Mr. Yoon, who grew up as a Catholic, and Mr. Katsiroubas, once Greek Orthodox, converted to Islam in high school.
A friend who knew Mr. Katsiroubas and Mr. Medlej said he had been questioned about them by CSIS in 2007, when the two were living in Edmonton.
On Wednesday, Mr. Yoon’s brother told The Globe and Mail that they believe he had travelled to Mauritania by way of Morocco but was not detained.
He said Mr. Yoon, who converted to Islam three or four years ago, had gone to Morocco to meet a friend and then proceeded to Mauritania. The brother said Mr. Yoon last spoke to his family on Sunday.
According to a former co-worker, Mr. Yoon had changed in recent years.
In 2008, he was a “fun-loving” teenager who worked part-time at a local restaurant and hung out with friends from work. When the co-worker met him again in 2011, he was praying several times a day and refusing to talk to his female supervisors.
The three men met while attending London South Collegiate Institute together. Mr. Medlej graduated in 2006 and Mr. Katsiroubas left after Grade 11. Both Mr. Yoon and Mr. Katsiroubas are believed to have converted to Islam while attending high school together, with Mr. Katsiroubas changing his name to Mustafa.